Reflections; Two Years as Expats

As the time winds down to our last two months in Malaysia, I’m reflecting on the success (or failure) of our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. While it’s time to move on, I wanted to clarify a few things based on some recent comments. First off, I’m not writing a “travel blog”. With thousands of really good travelogues out there, I wouldn’t even try to compete with any of them nor am I trying to tell any of you what hotels, restaurants and attractions to visit. Rather, our blog is for sharing stories about two middle class North Americans that decided to try an overseas early retirement and not stay in the workforce after an unexpected layoff. Calling it an experiment implies uncertainty and neither of us knew if we’d succeed or wind up crawling back home desperate for work. Honestly, if I had my way, I’d either stay in Western Canada without working or live in a sub-tropical or Mediterranean paradise like Turks and Caicos, Hawaii or Monaco.

Asam Laksa – The best of Penang

But unless you’re born with a silver spoon or your family name rhymes with Hump, life isn’t about what you want to do all the time so we chose to push up our original plan a half decade or so by compromising some comforts in exchange for a middle class lifestyle in the developing world. Considering ourselves lucky with timing but smart enough to pay off most of our 15 year mortgage in 7 years thanks to a lot of Saturday nights spent watching free DVD’s from the local library, we always had an emergency plan for a possible mid-career job loss. Although it may not seem like it, we’re actually living that emergency plan (at least financially) and not some digital nomad dream. At the same time, we’re also not struggling to make ends meet in a place where almost everything is two-thirds cheaper than back home. Like most compromises, there’s positives and negatives and I’d rather write my blog as a storyteller. While I strive to be respectful of locals, expats and readers, there’s a lot of things that need a good dose of constructive criticism in Penang. Like our well-educated Malaysian friends of both Malay and Chinese descent, we’d love to see some attitudes and habits change along with the ultra modernization happening all over. Make no mistake; citizens, companies, and businesses that burn garbage every day and turn crystal clear air into stinking health hazards despite federal laws on the books for 45 years explicitly prohibiting this are not representing anything close to “fully developed”. Nevertheless, I’ll focus on some funny and positive aspects.

Although we’d visited Thailand, Borneo and Ecuador in our working years to scope out possible retirement destinations, vacations are not the same as living somewhere. Knowing my open-minded but impatient brain, I figured two years in one place might be the upper limits to my attention span of one place to call home. Always thinking about “the next thing”, we paid for six years on the MM2H visa but came here understanding we may not love it. Seeming like the negatives are outweighing the positives lately, it’s lucky our landlord kind of wants us to leave anyway and for the record, we’re within $150 of our annual budget for the second year in a row and that includes trips to Cambodia, Thailand, Bali and a month back home in Canada this fiscal year so the experiment appears to be working for now.

All our vacations during the working years were aimed at finding a retirement destination.

Originally thinking I’d include a lot of posts about budgeting, early retirement plans and self-directed investing, I quickly discovered that along with the travel experts, there’s also scores of great blogs dedicated to all those topics written by people much smarter and more ambitious than me so I’ve kept the spreadsheets to myself. In fact, I found an article just this morning confirming why you’ll probably spend less in early retirement than you thought (It’s rather simple but makes the point. You’ll find it here if you’re curious). Deciding to scribble about what I do best, I write from the heart based on observation and one thing you can say about life in developing nations is that it’s always interesting. But it’s not always pretty which leads me to my other point; I don’t hate Malaysia just because I write about stuff that’s not always appealing. My relationship with this nation that’s generously hosted us for two years is best described as love/hate. Ridiculous things you wouldn’t ever see in developed nations make interesting stories even if they sound cynical, negative or critical.

For example, here’s a perfect example. Walking down the street the other day, one of those enormous trucks carrying some oversize load forced me to move over. Still looking much like a rural third world town despite the million dollar luxury condo construction projects, Batu Ferrenghi has lots of low clearance electrical wires. Plainly obvious the truck would knock down the wires, the driver continued right past anyway.

What makes the story funny, however is the “30M” sign hanging on the top of his truck. Obviously designed to show his 30 meter clearance level, the truck nevertheless knocked down an entire power line. While throngs of local Indians ate their breakfast without so much as a cursory glance, cars immediately began blowing their horns because everyone in Malaysia is dying to get wherever they’re going. Dumbfounded, the guy got out, surveyed the situation and instituted what I like to call “The Malaysian Solution”. Rather than calling any local authorities or texting his boss, he simply picked up the wires with little regard to electrical shock, threw them to the side, got back in his truck and continued with no regard to any possible consequences like power outages or phone line interruptions. And that, in a nutshell, is Malaysia.

But for every story that’s negative (assuming you think disregard for public safety is unacceptable), there’s always an offsetting positive story that’s equally funny. Expecting a package today from DHL but unwilling to stay in the condo all day, we asked the security guards to send them to the management office where we’d pick it up tomorrow. Instead, they showed up at the pool with the delivery guy because Malaysians make their best effort to keep you happy. I call this “The CAN treatment” which means Malays never say no, tell you they can’t do something or give you news you don’t want to hear. Even if it’s true.

poolside delivery.

Another thing we love about Malaysia is the non nonsense, bullshit free style of efficiency that’s displayed in retail, healthcare, dentistry and various other services we’d like to see improved in North America. During our trip to Canada a few months ago, we visited The Apple Store to ask about Diane’s Iphone issues and problems I’m having with my Ipad where pages freeze and I lose all text. Arriving 90 minutes before the store opened just to get an advance appointment with an “Apple genius”, they gave Diane a long disclaimer about how the phone might lose all her data if they check it and two days later, a Taiwanese born clerk told me “It’s impossible for Ipads to freeze” in the way I described and blamed it on a pause in our wifi while downloading an IOS update.

After waiting so long, coming back twice and waiting some more, we replaced Diane’s battery and had them reinstall the latest operating system on my IPad. Naturally, it still freezes and when we got back, my Iphone battery started dying. Completely opposite of the over developed world of sales reps, senior citizens taking Apple classes and appointments to see geniuses, we walked into an empty store in Penang called iMalaysian.com that services Apple products. Unlike the disclaimers and scare tactics of our world, a sign right on the counter gives you a detailed list of things to test with the clerk before and after service to avoid disputes and it also explains the few unlikely things that might happen. Asking about replacing my battery, a friendly Malay clerk took down our email and phone number, ran through the checklist and told me to come back in 40 minutes (3 days faster than in Canada). No money up front, no sales pitch and when I told her about what they said could happen if they opened the phone, she looked at us like we came from Planet Dumbass. Nobody has time for bullshit in Asia because most workers don’t get paid vacation, union benefits and sick days. And it was $25 cheaper than in Canada.

This sign is the “Apple Genius” in Asia

Speaking of signs, here’s another Malaysianism that makes me laugh. Malaysians love signs. Every little shanty shack roadside food stand and tin roof small businesses in our beach town has a professional looking sing but the food industry stands out because anywhere you go, every menu has a cornucopia of items crossed off, blacked out, taped over or otherwise described as “N/A”. In many cases, the owners never had any intention of carrying the item but want you to think they’re just out of the item so they tell you “Finish”, even if the restaurant just opened for the day. Some places have three or four signs and if the store goes under (as so many have in our town lately), the sign is a souvenir for anyone that wants to haul it away.

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Certainly one of the best parts of Malaysia is the ease and availability of inexpensive health care and dentistry. Given the absolute disaster disguised as a new Healthcare Act that the despicable white racist Republicans in The House of Representatives just approved in the United States, Americans would cringe at how the rest of the world works. Deciding we’d do some routine medical stuff done before moving, Diane went first. With one quick phone call, she reserved a time at Penang Adventist Hospital to get a battery of tests done along with a doctor’s consult. One of several reputable hospitals in Penang, it’s part of a network featuring 600 international not for profit hospitals and clinics worldwide and it’s so fast and efficient you’ll almost be intimidated after spending a lifetime with America’s pathetic system. Without needing any insurance forms, PCP’s or referrals to specialists, we arrived at 9 AM and went up to the counter. Instructing her to head to the diagnostic lab first, she chose the smaller package. (you choose from selected groups of tests and pay for only what you want). Despite the long line, it took only 15 minutes to draw blood and they sent the results directly to her OB/GYN’s office  before her appointment later that morning.

Adventist Hospital Penang

Next, they sent her to the Diagnostic Imaging department where she received a breast mammogram and PAP smear. Using some of the world’s most modern technology, you’re allowed to see the screen as they run the tests and doctors (not technicians), read the results on the spot. Informing us that everything would be ready for her doctor by 11 AM, we went for a quick bite, came back and went immediately into the doctor’s office. Staffed with personal assistants that know every single aspect of the patient history, doctors spend as long as you need on consults, do any necessary tests on the spot, and read the results themselves unlike the long chain of North American bureaucracy that includes technicians, administrators, insurance companies, specialists, emails and multiple visits. Spending fifteen minutes with her discussing health and well-being issues, the doctor also gave her an ultrasound (in the same small room) and talked about the results of her blood work.

Not surprisingly, when we compared our last lab results from Kaiser Permanente, our old employer sponsored healthcare plan in California, it turns out they ran 30% more tests in Malaysia for less than half the price. Finishing up with her doctor, we then went down the hall to the pharmacy to pick up some medications. Since it’s also the main cashier, they already had the entire day’s billing ready and we a took number from the queue. Before I was even done peeing, they called us and by 12:10 PM, Diane’s annual healthcare check finished up. Charging $166 USD for an entire battery of routine medical health care procedures, it’s all done in three hours and with no roaming from place to place. Additionally, new patients choose their own doctor and you’re given a summary of their education and experience. Almost all Malaysian doctors get their education in the USA, UK or Australia and many have spent time working overseas. Having researched Malaysian healthcare before we moved, Thailand is equally impressive so we’re not concerned about leaving. Basically, every American citizen should be outraged at a government ready to rescind coverage for 24 million people and bring back exclusions for preexisting conditions so a bunch of élite billionaires get another tax cut and the signature legacy of a black president can be revoked. But you voted for this shit so what did you really expect? I’ll take my excellent expat overseas healthcare.

And finally, my favorite and very best part about living in Penang is two years of quality time spent with my non human friends. Probably the best place in Southeast Asia for interactions with urban monkeys, I’ve learned an enormous amount about their personalities, habits, and lifestyles and they’ve provided a great base for possible future volunteer activities involving animals. Initially thinking I’ve hadn’t really accomplished anything since arriving, I feel blessed to spend so much time with our closest relatives. Honorable mention goes out to the water monitor lizards whose young are often quite tame. Although the small ones can be handled, always know what you’re doing because their bites can be quite painful.

So the experiment continues as we prepare to take a two-week exploratory trip to Chiang Mai next month where we plan on opening a bank account and searching for a suburban house to rent for a year. Considering how much I complain about the burning, you may think we’re nuts to go somewhere that has its own “burning season when the farmers of Northern Thailand set their fields ablaze for crop planting and destroy the environment for six or eight weeks. But Thailand is a lot lower on the World Development Index and the military government doesn’t brag about its “almost developed status” while allowing its citizens to defy all the rules because it’s a “nation of convenience”. Wishing Malaysia and its citizens the best for the future, we hope they get to a point where many of the most educated and successful citizens choose to stay and not emigrate. But I’m not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, I’m approaching 100,000 page views and the blog’s future remains unclear because I’m debating if I should keep writing once we get settled in Thailand. Mostly read by lurkers and non-active participants, I understand I’m not willing to put the effort into the blog that digital nomads do but I also don’t need any extra income for now. If you’ve enjoyed reading and want to keep Malaysia fresh in your mind, I highly recommend our friend’s blog. Written by a working expat, Oh My Expat LIfe is a blog authored by a wonderfully optimistic American woman who always sees the glass half full. But I do get the occasional email urging me to keep writing and thanking me for the honest and candid viewpoints missing from so many other expat blogs so I’m sure I’ll no doubt keep going. Meanwhile, please pray for our beloved Edmonton Oilers as they play the seventh and deciding game in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many thanks to the Canadian expats in Chiang Mai that responded about what bars we can watch the Stanley Cup be hoisted despite the 7 AM start time of final round games. Apparently, Bloody Caesars look like the way to go.

Comments, questions, criticisms and feedback always welcome.

17 thoughts on “Reflections; Two Years as Expats

  1. Chris

    Just rent a place for 2-3 months in Chiang Mai, and get a non-immigrant tourist visa in penang. valid for 2 months and can be extended for another 30 days. Chiang Mai is no Rome. You’ll appreciate Malaysia more, when you spend time in Thailand. Communication is a huge issue there – and this becomes apparent when you have to do anything of any complexity. Chiang Mai can be exceedingly hot during the summer – temperatures over 40 celcius. And there is no sea breeze like you have in western phuket. Western Phuket has a real-feel that is considerably cooler than Penang.
    Why not just spend a few months there, and then move on. And explore more of the world. You could then base yourself somewhere in Greece – milder, safer and cheap too – and you can access the rest of Europe quite easily. Just my two cents!
    Spain is ok for a trip – but like Penang, many parts are horribly over-developed. Much more beautiful places in a lot of Italy, Greece and France.

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Thanks for the advice but we disagree with everything you say. We hate Phuket and would go to Krabi for the beach. We will never appreciate Malaysia any more than we have and are aware of all the good and bad after two years. I’m sorry Chiang Mai is wrong for you but to each his own. If we hate it after one year we will find somewhere else. We don’t have resources to explore the rest of the world. I am 52 and we have no income thus need to live modestly if we expect our investments to kick in and support us until 90 or longer after our house money is gone. And we don’t like moving around every year

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  2. Mike

    Best of luck for your recconaisance to Chiangmai Mai. Have you got any contacts up there for the house and banking ? Thai banks can be a bit funny to deal with, different branches of the same bank will have different rules and procedures. Bangkok Bank and Kasikorn Bank (K-bank) are generally the best for us farangs to deal with. Bangkok Bank has a US office in New York which may be useful for you sometime ?
    It looks like I will be moving on from BKK sometime next year as the GF wants to move back home to Ubon Ratchathani. About 30 Kim’s out of the city to be precise, I have been several times before and think it’s not a bad little town to live in. Plenty of “Thai style” houses to rent but I will insist on some western comforts !

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Mike
      Thanks for the note. We have done extensive research on Bangkok Bank and do have someone that’s agreed to introduce us to his relationship manager at the branch where most foreigners bank near CMU. We also have some contacts to show us suburban houses; we’re looking to live in moo baans in Hang Dong clsoer to the mountains which is cooler and better for hiking and being active. We’re taking a trip three weeks from today to open the bank account and sign a lease or sublet then coming back and hopefully getting the non-O visas from the guy in Penang that’s the resident expert on that. Look us up if you ever come north
      Cheers

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  3. Val

    Hi Rob,

    Please keep writing! I love your posts, you are the only one out there who takes off the rose-tinted glasses and offers an alternative, realistic outlook at life in Penang. I am so looking forward to reading what you think of Chiang Mai, which is a place we are considering for retirement.

    All the best, hope your move goes smoothly!

    Val (a French living in Eastern Canada for now)

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Val
      Thanks for appreciating my sense of realistic sarcasm. I for try to keep it light while pointing out things you’ll never read on the tourism sitghts or most of the goody two shoes blogs. But I always make sure I balance it with the positive becuase I understand nobody likes Debbie Downers (Diane’s favorite name for me). I will probably keep the blog going once we get a new PC (would you believe I’m still using Vista even after it’s been discontinued from Microsoft support). And I’m sorry but we just can’t cheer for the Senators after the Oilers great playoff run.
      Cheers

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  4. Young

    Getting old in US scares me to death. Since 2008 financial turmoil, every financial institutions and hospitals are outrageous, hospitals charge a box of tissue for over $5000.00. what scares me the most is “out of network” cost. I can’t use banks without CFPB’s help these days, just look at what happened to Wells Fargo. CFPB brought down Wells Fargo, instead of praising it, law-makers wanted to dismantle CFPB that I couldn’t be more dumfounded. So many people are frustrated with discount brokerages that are trying to steal in every possible way, they don’t care whether we know it or not. My bottom line is that companies in US, just don’t want to make a profit, they want to make a killing. Fighting against these crooks is my full time job now, everyday something pops up, internet and TV today, then tomorrow credit card. These things getting worse everyday that worries me, I have no idea how to tackle these when we are older. I do not want to leave US now, maybe in the future.

    Sorry, I can’t pray for Edmonton Oilers, we are from Pittsburgh, PA. Go Penguins, which was last year’s Stanley Cup champion.

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Sorry to hear about your concerns. Seems to me sixty million dumbass morons supporting a man child ignorant billionaire that’s literally changing the nation should be more scared then you. But they’re not so after four months it’s apparent that expatriating may be one of the only viable options for millions of average folks. Thankfully (for other nations,) ignorance and misguided patriotism leads millions to mock me and those that “desert” so good luck to all of you

      For what it’s worth, our house money and future investments appear to be enough for us not to work again as long as we return to (or stay in) a nation with inexpensive healthcare (like Thailand or Malaysia) or social healthcare so it’s a good thing I love Canada because clearly we would be shelling out 30% of our annual budget if we needed personal private coverage in the USA and that’s absolutely unacceptable and insane when there’s a whole big world out there.

      From your post I’m unclear what keeps you so deteremind not to leave a nation that’s destroyed its citizenry with a populist lunatic dead set on turning America into Turkey, Venezuela or any other shithole nation that suppresses or jails journalists, brainwashed its people with rhetoric and passes legislation that literally mocks the very ideals that America was founded on. And it pains me that I may never be able to live there again since I’m certainly not becoming a Walmart greeter or working in a car wash once I’m actually old enough to be retired for real.

      As for the Oilers, no problem. Pittsburgh deserves what they have and good for them.

      Cheers

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  5. annacronism

    The healthcare you describe is fantastic. I can’t tell you how distressing things are here in the UK where decades of underfunding in nurse and doctor training, in general practitioner surgeries (where we visit our doctors) and in hospitals; and decades of inventing ridiculous healthcare management structures has led us into complete crisis. All this has been political as successive governments have been slyly selling-off the NHS bit-by-bit to enthusiastic buyers – think, Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, American corporates etc etc. It’s infuriating and sad that we have a fantastic system, for 70 years free at the point of access, being destroyed by politicians and corporate capitalism.

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi
      Thanks for the sad but realistic comment. Funny part is one of my Facebook friends with a chronic condition went into a tizzy about patriotism, rah rah America crap when I suggested he read my post. Whereas there’s tens of thousands of Brits in Malaysia an I’m sure healthcare is one reason. Americans are so stuck on their ridiculous notion that doing something that’s financially practical for yourself is “deserting”. Who gives a shit when your government enacts legislation that TAKES AWAY HEALTHCARE from 24 million citizens and penalizes people what preexistimg conditions? I empathize with you guys and might suggest looking into a host of Commonewealth nations or former colonies that have much better healthcare.
      Cheers

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      1. annacronism

        “Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead….” Arundhati Roy, War Talk.

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  6. reb of Melbourne

    Hi Diane and Rob

    Thanks for another great article. I love your writing style, so easy to read and entertaining too…

    My partner and I are back in Melbourne after returning from a 2 week holiday in Penang with a few days in Chiang Mai in-between. One thing about Chiang Mai was that it hadn’t seemed to have changed much at all. We were there some 15 years ago, and if anything the night market seemed quieter. Maybe it was because we arrived just after Sonkran Festival had finished.

    I do hope you keep writing as we’re thinking about doing the same thinking – retiring in Penang on MM2H for me (my partner is a local Penangite, so no issue for him), and potentially spending some time of the year in Chiang Mai and Melbourne.

    One question I have that you may be able to help me with. I recently followed up with the MM2H office regarding my application and they replied that they have now processed my application and have sent it off to the Immigration Department and are awaiting their decision. Does this mean they don’t require any further info from me? Should I take it as a good sign….?

    Cheers
    Steven

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Steven
      Thanks for writing and the kind comments. As far as I remember it sounds like they’ve got everything they need from you so you’ll probably have an answer soon. Sounds like you are a do it yourself person otherwise I’d say check with your agent. Good luck
      Cheers

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